Wednesday, April 22, 2015

A Wine That Says "Let's Get Lost"

Poudre d'Escampette is an old French expression that loosely translates to "escape" or "take to your heels." I think in the context of this particular wine from Le Casot de Mailloles, the phrase is more like "let's get lost."

With just 5 hectares of vines, Le Casot des Mailloles is perhps the smallest domaine in the Banyuls region of Southern France. It was started in 1994 by partners, Alain Castex and Ghislaine Magnier. Today, the domaine has the reputation of being the greatest producer in Banyuls. Quite ironic since none of its wines carry the Banyuls AOC as they are humbly classified Vin de France--this despite all their vineyards being situated within the Banyuls appellation.

Work is done totally manually most of the year by just Alain Castex and Ghislaine. Their vineyards are planted with very old vines, close to 100 years old or more and have been fully organic since 1997. They vinify their wines using native yeasts and without any additives or addition of sulphites. The wines are bottled by hand without filtering. Production is an uneconomic less than 5,000 bottles a year. Clearly the domaine exists because they love what they do.

There are certainly more than enough wine lovers in France and elsewhere in Europe who buy out the domaine's production every year. Its wines have rarely reached the US, and if ever just in dribs and drabs. Last year, a handful of cases, probably no more than 6 cases were imported to the US. I'm wishing this year we would see more.

Meanwhile, I have a few bottles of their haunting 2013 Poudre d'Escampette. Let's get lost.

Vin de France "Poudre d'Escampette", Le Casot des Mailloles 2013 $28.00 (order here)

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Man Who Changed Burgundy

The sad passing of Anne-Claude Leflaive last week also made me think of Jean-Claude Rateau. Rateau pioneered biodynamic viticulture in Burgundy in 1979 and was then only the fourth vigneron in all of France to practice biodynamics. His lecture on biodynamics a decade later drew many Burgundy producers including Anne-Claude Leflaive.

Since then most of the top Burgundy vignerons converted to biodynamic viticulture, including, Leflaive, Leroy, DRC, Lafon, Lafarge, De Montille, to name just a few. Amazingly Rateau still remains somewhat undiscovered today. I'm very pleased to help import his Burgundies to the U.S. His wines are not easy to find even in France, so I'm very happy for this new opportunity.

Jean-Claude Rateau is a native of Beaune. After completing wine studies at the Lycée Viticole, he went to train in Beaujolais, where he found out about biodynamics. On his return to Burgundy, he started practicing biodynamics on his vineyards in Beaune in 1979, the first one to do so in Burgundy.

But what differentiates Rateau from other vignerons that farm biodynamcially is that he is just as consistent in the cellar. He vinifies as naturally as possible with native yeasts and with very minimal sulfur. He never uses new oak and usually doesn't filter. The results are wines with obvious energy and transparency. They benefit from at least a few years aging to show their full potential, especially the premiers crus.

Hautes Cotes de Beaune Bourgogne Blanc, Domaine Jean-Claude Rateau 2013 $26.00 (read more)

Hautes Cotes de Beaune Bourgogne Rouge, Domaine Jean-Claude Rateau 2013 $29.00 (read more)

Beaune "Clos des Mariages", Domaine Jean-Claude Rateau 2012 $42.00 (read more)

Beaune Premier Cru Les Reversees, Domaine Jean-Claude Rateau 2011 $48.00 (read more)

Beaune Premier Cru Les Coucherias Blanc, Domaine Jean-Claude Rateau 2012 $54.00 (read more)

Beaune Premier Cru Bressandes, Domaine Jean-Claude Rateau 2011 $57.00 (read more)

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Bourgueil Stephane Guion -- Deals and Steals

This has opened up deliciously from just six months ago. If you drink it now you'd be happy. Or you can sit on it more and you'll be amply rewarded. The 2008 from magnum was glorious recently, but alas sold out.

From 40 to 85 year-old Cab Franc vines farmed organically since 1965. Vinified using natives yeasts, without additives and no addition of sulphites until bottling, when a small dose was applied.

We sell it for just $17! One of our Deals and Steals!

Bourguiel "Cuvee Prestige", Domaine Guion 2012 $17.00 (order here)

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Matsunotsukasa, Shiga

Shiga, a largely rural prefecture, borders Kyoto. Omi was its former name, and the prized wagyu that comes from Shiga is famously known as Omi-gyu. I didn't spot a grazing cow during my two winter visits here, perhaps the bovines are pampered indoors, which would account for the tender, fatty quality of their meat. Another local specialty is funa-zushi crucian carp, which is caught from Lake Biwa, the largest freshwater lake in Japan. Both these local gastronomic treats go perfectly with the locally produced sake.

I come to Shiga to visit the small, artisanal Matsuse Brewery which produces the Matsunotsukasa sake brand, one of the best sakes I know. On my way to the brewery from the train station what is immediately apparent in the flat landscape are the rice fields. Shiga is home to rice.

Each step in making Matsunotsukasa sake is done in small batches and by hand. It's back-breaking work. Last year I spent 3 days at the brewery helping make sake from dawn till dusk. I was hanging on to life by the third day. I can't imagine how the kurabito, including the toji, can work like this six months straight. At Matsuse Brewery the crew is only about 5 or 6 workers; they are constantly moving during the day. Rice waits for no one.

An ongoing internal project in the kura is brewing in an amphora-shaped clay vessel that was custom-made by an American pottery artist in Kyoto. It's an expensive way of making sake, the process takes a bit longer to finish it seems, but the sake shows extraordinary richness and depth.

Matsuse-San is a hands-on owner or kuramoto. He has a sensitive palate, an open-mind, and a generous spirit. The one thing that really matters to him about his sake is quality. He took the bold step of appointing a young toji to lead the brewery in achieving quality. His thinking was right. Today, the brewery sells out everything it makes and buyers are falling in line. Matsunotsukasa is the one sake I'm most excited in bringing to the U.S.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

2012 Aurélien Verdet Chambolle-Musigny

I started selling Aurélien Verdet's Burgundies from the 2007 vintage, only his second vintage, when it was first imported to the US. Verdet was a virtual unknown back then, and even today, he still flies under the radar. His wines appealed to me immediately for their brilliant purity and precision. Today, Verdet is one of Burgundy's rising star producers. His wines are starting to get recognized as some of the best made in Burgundy.

For example, check out the latest Wine Spectator reviews on top 2012 Burgundies below that was published online this week, 11th March 2015

Even when compared to far more expensive grands crus wines from luminary producers such as Roumier and Grivot, Aurélien Verdet's more humble single lieu-dit village Chambolle-Musigny "les Condemennes" rivals them!

Only in his early 30s, Aurélien Verdet produces marvelous wines from some of Burgundy's plush terrains, including Nuits-St.-Georges, Vosne-Romanée, and Chambolle-Musigny. In his late 20s he won the prestigious 2008 GJPV award (Group des Jeunes Professionnels de la Vigne) for best young talent in all the Côte de Nuits.

Verdet is one of the few producers in Burgundy that makes wines as naturally as possible and with minimum intervention. He farms organically and vinifies with native yeasts and without additives and chaptalization. He adds only a small dose of sulfites. 

In the much praised 2012 vintage, Verdet crafted a lovely single-vineyard Chambolle-Musigny from the Les Condemennes lieu-dit adjacent to the premier cru vineyard Charmes. This is amazing village Chambolle, at least as good as several premiers crus and even grands crus Chambolle wines from this vintage. An unmistakable, pure expression of Chambolle.

Our stock is arriving over the next two weeks, but I'm selling this now at a special pre-arrival price of $65 (regular is $75). And at less than $70, it is about half the price of a top producer's Chambolle-Charmes!

The Verdet family was one of the first wine growers in Burgundy to go organic in 1971. Aurélien Verdet carries on the work that his father started, farming all the vineyard parcels under the domaine organically. But that's not all. Overall, Aurélien's winemaking is "done by feel, by taste, by intuition, by the phases of the moon and as the wines from each parcel and from each vintage demand", or so he says.

This wine arrives over the next two weeks. Please respond by email to or voicemail (650.552.9530) and I'll try my best to fill your request. As always, full payment upon order. Thank you.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Kirei, Hiroshima

When I arrived with my friend on Miyajima Island it was almost midday. This was the start of a full day in Hiroshima, a region that feels laidback after escaping the bustle of Tokyo. The day was overcast and quiet, with a low tide. We both thought our timing was perfect to visit Itsukushima Shrine.

The island is one of the three most beautiful sites of Japan, commonly called the Three Views of Japan. Itsukushima Shrine is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its famous Otorii is unbelievably gigantic consisting of massive tree trunks as pillars. The vermillion structure dwarfs anyone that gets close to it.

The Shrine is painted in the same vermillion color as the torii. During high tide it is said to appear as if floating. I wondered how they figured the exact height to raise the shrine so it won't flood when the water rises. I don't see any watermarks above the stilts. I consider it one of the wonders of this place. But there was another wonder I was about to discover.

Tourists, of course, visit Miyajima all year round. Although I could use a good cup of coffee since I haven't had one all morning, I thought it was a blessing not to see any Starbucks anywhere even back on the mainland. But to my delight and surprise a third wave coffee purveyor was right on the island! Miyajima Itsuki Coffee looks like a hipster coffee shop you'd walked into in San Francisco's Mission District. Two young ladies were behind the counter. They were featuring single-origin Nicaraguan so I ordered a pour-over cup and my friend went for a latte. The coffee was good and strong. God I missed coffee. Living in the San Francisco Bay Area I'm used to finding a coffee shop on every street corner. Not in Japan, nor probably anywhere else in the world outside the US.

Hiroshima is famous for its style of okonomiyaki, and Miyajima, in particular, for its oysters. We thought it wise to have both for lunch while we're still here. Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki is more of a sandwich than an omelette, which is what would describe the other okonomiyaki, the Osaka-style. The ingredients are piled in layers between griddled batters, instead of mixing the ingredients with the batter. What's in the okonomiyaki is pretty simple: a fistful of fresh shredded cabbage, fresh bean sprouts, and griddled yaki soba noodles. When put together by the master okonomiyaki maker and doused sparingly with the appropriate sauce (Otafuku) it's like a gastronomic miracle. Oishi, my friends!

The plate of oysters--it was probably griddled, too, because I can't see any other cooking appliance in the open kitchen--came with another fistful of fresh cabbage threads. They sure love cabbage in these parts. I scarfed down the plate quickly as we had to catch a train to Saijo about 40 miles north inland.

Saijo is Hiroshima's famous Sake Town. The locals have been producing sake here since the 17th century. Eight breweries are tightly clustered together along the main street, with their chimneys breathing down each others neck. For example, the building walls of Kirei and Kamotsuru are separated only by a gap of about a foot. What accounts for this crowding is water. Saijo is surrounded by mountains, which create an environment with ideal low temperatures during fall and winter for making sake. Water from the mountains flows down to Saijo like a basin, with the purest water concentrated on a narrow strip of land. Hence, everyone wants to be right on top of that water source.

Despite its history of being a sake capital, Saijo feels sleepy even in the height of winter's sake making season. The truth is the town's famous brewers squandered their fortunes by depending on high volume, low quality sake. Demand for this kind of sake has been declining. Walking by the kura of such prestigious brewers as Kamotsuru and Kamoizumi in the middle of the day we stopped to listen, there was no sound of activity. Is it too late to reverse the trend? I'm not sure, but the one exception though is Kirei Shuzo, above.

Kirei's name is a reference to the turtle's longevity, which is to suggest that drinking Kirei's sake helps in living a long, full life. Well, Kirei was totally alive when we entered the kura. The workers were busy washing rice in preparation for steaming.

The toji, Masahiro Nishigaki, a stocky, tough looking dude, is doubtless in command of the kura. He and Kirei's sales manager, Ueda-san, spearheaded Kirei's focus on making high quality sake. A wise move because as Japan's sake market has fallen, demand for the best quality sake has not wavered.

At a local restaurant we enjoyed two of Kirei's popular sake, a junmai ginjo and a daiginjo. The dishes were pretty much all seafood and they went great with the sake. Of course, we had oysters, but something more unusual was this flaming conch shell bubbling in its broth on a bed of salt. I couldn't wait to get my hands on them. You don't see conchs in sushi joints anymore in the States. Last time I ordered one was at Sushi Sam's in San Mateo, but that was over a decade ago. Another all-time favorite app is shiokara, raw ika innards marinating in its own juice and probably some dashi. It's a sake drinker's best friend.

Of the two sake that we drank, the junmai ginjo was my preference. I really seldom prefer daiginjo because it's too gentle and soft for my taste. I want to feel the sake in my mouth.

Next morning we were back at Kirei's kura for a tour of the facility and a quick tasting of some new sake. The main street of Saijo was quiet, you'd never know you're standing on one of the sake brewing capitals of Japan.

Perhaps Saijo is more serene now for this Zen meditation center we passed by.

The two new sake to taste were still in sample bottles--a junmai and a daiginjo. They were both really good. The daiginjo, aromatic and refined; while the junmai, more natural tasting and textured. I like the junmai more. I think the consensus was we all liked it. This is the one I would like to bring to the US, especially if they can bottle it in 500ml. For American drinkers, I believe 500ml is just the right sake bottle size. 300ml is too small, especially if there's two of you drinking, while 720ml is a bit much for casual sake drinking. While busy with these thoughts, I remember Ueda-san can put down four 720ml bottles in one sitting.

Standing outside of Kirei's building with Ueda-san, general manager and chief strategist at Kirei. He's a modest man with a ton of self-confidence. He could probably outdrink anyone I know.

This visit to Hiroshima and Saijo was eye-opening. Over the past centuries many have traveled here to drink their famous sake. I'm excited to introduce Kirei's sake soon in the States so fellow Americans can experience real Hiroshima sake made from the pure waters of Saijo.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Noella Morantin Touraine Gamay

A few days ago I got together with friends for a terrific meal at a neighborhood Chinese restaurant. I brought a newly released Gamay from the Loire because no red goes better with Chinese (Cantonese in particular) cuisine than Gamay. Gamay's tartness and fruity sour cherry flavors go with practically any Chinese dish, including steamed fish! Yet, I have a weakness for pork so I ordered barbecue pork cheeks. The sweet tender slices were heavenly with the Gamay.

The particular Gamay I drank was Noella Morantin's 2013 Touraine Gamay "La Boudinerie", which was fitting since she made this as a vin de soif to go with cochonailles. "Boudinerie" is the name of the farm she rents where she has her cellar. Perhaps they used to make blood sausage there, too.

After years working at Domaine Les Bois Lucas, in 2009 she jumped on the opportunity to lease a good chunk of vineyards from nearby Clos Roche Blanche, which was downsizing and now totally retired. She is helped by Laurent Saillard, who used to operate a restaurant in New York, then decided to go back to France to work at Clos Roche Blanche, then at Noella Morantin's domaine. Laurent is also leasing vines from Clos Roche Blanche and has started to produce wines on his own.

Noella's Gamay is beautifully crafted. I'm not sure how old the Gamay vines are but they probably have some age since they were from Clos Roche Blanche. Noella does partial whole cluster fermentation--maybe 60%--and vinifies with natural yeasts and no additives. She adds minimal sulfites during the one racking but none at all afterwards even at bottling.

This 2013 Gamay has a fresh and wild expression, a rawness for sure, and an edge. It would be interesting to see how it ages, but for now I love its savage charm--goes well with the bbq pork.